"Choice is something a lot of service providers and volunteers trying to provide help to others don't often consider," Think Dignity director Anne Rios tells me when we sit down at her group's North Park offices on 30th Street in mid-October.
Originally launched as Girls Think Tank, Think Dignity has pushed for improved homeless services. They brought a pilot program to increase access to public restrooms Downtown in 2014, years before the hepatitis A outbreak, partially blamed on a lack of access to sanitation. The group provides legal aid in criminal defense and other matters, and operates a transitional storage center "Waterman" David Ross set up earlier. Since Ross' death this spring, they've taken on his mission of distributing bottled drinking water to those on the streets.
I'm with Rios to talk about mobile programs put on by Think Dignity's "MOD Squad," including mobile showers.
"Our MOD Squad name stands for mobile operations of dignity," Rios explains. "It began in 2016 when the Fresh Start shower program took off, and our goal is to provide services where people are. Instead of having them come to us, we meet them where they are."
Partnering mostly with churches, Think Dignity brings its mobile trailer, stocked with toiletries,, to 11 sites a month, providing about 1300 showers a year.
Rios continues, "People who visit the showers are our guests, we have a lounge area where people can relax while they're waiting. We always insist on giving everyone 15 minutes. Some people have said that's kind of lengthy, especially when we're at a crowded event, but many of the people who visit haven't had a shower in a month or more.
"The showers often aren't done alone, but in collaboration with other organizations. So, we host at a church site where we're also inviting, say, a family health center or UC San Diego medical students who operate a clinic. Maybe volunteers are helping people sign up for Medi-Cal or apply for food stamps."
The idea is at this point fairly unique – another group called Lava Mae has been providing a similar service in the Bay Area and Los Angeles, but public shower facilities have yet to catch on in much of the nation.
The group operates a "street café" twice monthly at Chicano Park and a "street boutique" pop-up at varying locations once a month. At both events, attendees are given credit tokens that can be exchanged for a variety of goods – hygiene products or undergarments at the boutique, fresh produce or prepared meals at the café.
"Food that's often distributed may include granola bars. But for many people on the street, their teeth often aren't in the healthiest condition and it's extremely hard to bite down and enjoy the food. Still, they don't want to be in the position of seeming ungrateful so they'll accept things they're never going to be able to use.
"This idea of providing the opportunity to come and 'shop' at our boutique or our café, it gives people the right to make the decision as to what they need. Is that menstrual products, or incontinence products? Neither? What about clean undergarments? Whatever a person identifies as their greatest need, that's what they're able to come in and get.
"It's the same thing with our street café, people choose their own fruits, vegetables, proteins."
"What we've heard is that providing services attracts [homeless] people, and that serving them only exasperates the situation," Rios tells me. "East County loves having us out, the same is true to the north and south, it's just in the central region where we get the pushback."
The shower trailer costs about $100,000 annually to operate.
"Mobile programs are some of the most expensive, there are all these costs you don't think about. The shower trailer cost $25,000, but then to sustain it you need staff, gas for the truck, money to launder the towels, a truck driver, insurance for the truck driver."
The group hoped to raise about $40,000 at its annual gala held last weekend. The event is one of the largest public fundraisers it holds; other funding coming from grants.